Violence in society is like a crack in a mirror. The crack distorts the image of us, and we become ambiguous. Un-unified. Like the mirror's crack, violence destroys the fabric that unites people, thus eliminating the possibility of togetherness. South African history speaks at length of the harm that divisions cause, and when sustained with violence, the damage is often irreversible. Yet, when one thinks that the lesson should have been learned, we find ourselves surrounded by fear and suspicion of threats of attacks against the newest enemy on the menu: foreigners. Puzzled, we wonder what turns ordinary people into killers. Again we overhear people bringing up the "culture of violence" argument, which, if not outright misleading, is only partially true at best. Beyond this type of justification for any outburst of violence in this country, there lies an unexplored driving force that allows people to commit the most heinous acts against equals: myths. "Before we make war or weapons, we make an idea of the enemy", suggests Sam Keen, the narrator of the film Faces of the Enemy. Indeed, Sam. Indeed.
Myths serve multiple purposes. They can rally some people behind ideas of a common identity as much as they can trigger others to engage in violence to avenge their sense of disentitlement. As of today, myths about foreigners and the attacks themselves have (mis)informed people in South Africa and marred a better picture of reality. For instance, when the media frames the attacks as solely xenophobic, the violent targeting of South Africans is misrecognised. Arbitrarily, certain stories are chosen to make generalisations of the situation of thousands of migrants in this country. South Africans, who, day in and day out, fought in the struggle for liberation from apartheid, find themselves scrapping for work in the volatile neoliberal market. In the middle of the evening dark, frustrated and angry that another empty day will come to dash any hope of a better future, South Africans wonder: Why? While enduring the Johannesburg cold of mid-July, without electricity and running water, they envisage a scope of possibilities that look anything but promising. More questions. No answers. The intoxicating euphoria of 1994 has been replaced by an emasculating sense of betrayal. And in this rough scheme of circumstances, the strange foreigner comes to steal jobs, wives, houses, dignities. The success of one Ethiopian is the reason for the failure of all unemployed South Africans, so the myth goes. It spreads. Like fire, it spreads and it kills.
Amid passersby' whispers commenting on the-have-you-heard-of story of the day, the news headlines foretelling the doomed future and the impromptu talks of talks about talks among stakeholders and over-empowered officials, little has been said about some key issues at stake that can demystify the mystified. The linkages among people involved in the attacks transgress the very national boundaries that are accused as the main cause of violence. Reality check: South Africans that engage in violent attacks against foreigners have more in common with those they attack than with those that they choose in the ballots. South Africans, Zimbabweans or Mozambicans in squatter camps and townships are equally the victims of a negligent system that denies them basic rights. When listening to the concerns and demands of the sides involved in the 2008 attacks, one can see that their worries have common ground: the pressing desire to live a better life, a desire that cannot be taken away from anybody on accounts of race, gender or nationality.
Some would argue that the South African state is unable to provide for all. However, asking the question of why migrants come to this country in the first place can unpack a whole new set of issues that must be addressed. While South Africans enjoy their well-deserved political freedoms, many also choose to remain blissfully ignorant of the situation in neighbouring Zimbabwe, forgetting that only decades ago Zimbabwe had an important role in bringing down the minority government in South Africa. While Robert Mugabe stubbornly holds on to his seat of power, it should come as no surprise that hundreds decide to cross the borders every day to escape a (mis)rule that should have expired years ago. Whether South Africa has a role in the political situation of Zimbabwe is open to endless discussion, but the political affairs of a country affect the social, and social issues defy imagined national boundaries. The Zimbabwean that reaches the streets of Johannesburg or Cape Town has a story to tell that resonates with the same feelings of disempowered South Africans whose dream of the rainbow nation has not been fulfilled. Perhaps the time has come to start speaking the human rights' language that permeates the 1996 Constitution for what it is: human. Given its history and as the most powerful country on the continent, South Africa has the responsibility to protect what is human through all means available. The problems of Zimbabweans are the problems of South Africans, and this is no myth.
Once we challenge the myths that fuel the violence, we realise that foreigners and nationals who are victims of attacks are only scapegoats. In a way, it is in the best interests of those in power that the "poor peoples' conflict" on the streets remains. The sensationalist momentum of xenophobia takes the spotlight away from officials' utter inability to deliver their promises. It is about time we change the lenses through which we view the violence that takes place in this country. It is the myths that are killing us and taking us further way from fighting the right fight — a fight, nonetheless, that will no longer be resolved with violence. For when it comes to violence, no space should be allowed for ambiguity, contextualisation or hesitance. This fight requires we uplift South Africa's democracy, which will only occur with appropriate grassroots participation of those today lost in a myopic, myth-driven struggle.
Jazmin Acuna and Kindiza Ngubeni are with the peacebulding programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg.
Originally published in the Mail & Guardian.